Sunday, May 05, 2013

Unsettling Tales From The Organ Trade

Selling body organs is illegal in most countries, but thousands of people around the world buy and sell the most sought-after organ -- the kidney -- on the black market each year.

Tales From The Organ Trade, directed by Ric Esther Bienstock and narrated by Canadian film director David Cronenberg, had its North American premiere last week at Toronto's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. It features people who buy, sell and perform the operations that transfer kidneys from donor to recipient and presents multiple views that shows the moral dilemma involved in this underground practice. After all, 182 people around the globe die from kidney failure in the 82 minutes this documentary plays out -- many of them while on long waiting lists to obtain a legally donated kidney.

Forty-four-year-old Filipino kidney seller Joboy in Manilla lives in a crawl space with no electricity underneath someone else's shack and says the $2,500 he can make for his kidney -- more than he can earn in a year from working as an unskilled labourer -- will go towards fixing his house for his wife and two sons. Eddieboy, a rival potential donor who says he earns $2.50 per week, is coached by organ broker Diane (who's already sold one of her own kidneys) on what to say when he's questioned by authorities on why he's donating a kidney. He's ultimately chosen by a doctor and recipient since he's half of Joboy's age.

A small town five hours outside of Manilla is a hotbed for black market kidney donors, so much so that they've even formed support a group. Some of them say they weren't paid all they were promised for their kidneys because brokers got some of the money, but all claim to have sold them willingly.

One donor shows signs of kidney disease and his remaining kidney is failing rapidly, however, just like the one he donated to a person he'll never meet probably is. It apparently isn't uncommon for people who've received black market kidneys to receive infections from them.

On the other side of the world, we meet two people in Toronto and one in Denver who desperately need new kidneys to enable them to live a normal life.

Mary Jo Vradis has been living on dialysis via a machine in her bedroom which she needs to use for eight hours every second day while she's been waiting for a kidney transplant for six years. Her mother's been on dialysis for 18 years and it's taken a major physical toll on her, and her brother started dialysis three years ago. There's an increased mortality rate for people on dialysis, so it's heartening when the film's epilogue informs us that Mary Jo eventually received a kidney from a cadaver after waiting for nine years.

Walter Rassbach needs a transplant in the next year or two or will likely die within eight years. He's been on a transplant list for two years and, since his daughter doesn't want to donate her kidney, he seriously considers going the black market route even though he admits that it's unfair to take advantage of people's poverty in this way. But a woman he's never met agrees to donate a kidney to him for free just because she wants to help someone live a better life. Such altruistic donors, we're told, are said to be one in a million.

Raul Fain mortgaged his house and went to Kosovo, where he paid $100,000 for a black market kidney transplant that has given him a new lease on life. He has no qualms about it and, when the filmmakers track down his donor, she says she has no regrets either.

Dr. Yusuf Sonmez, who has performed more than 2,000 black market kidney transplants, was driven out of Turkey and went to Kosovo for his operations. He faces numerous charges, but has returned to Turkey (which won't extradite him to Kosovo) and stopped his surgeries.

Prosecutors are still after him, however, just like they are with Israel's Zaki Shapira, who does his first on-camera interview in this film. The respected surgeon has done more than 3,600 kidney transplants, about 850 of which are considered illegal, and like Sonmez was jailed in Turkey for a few months before being released. He's now retired and claims that performing black market transplants is more moral than standing by and letting people, who could go on to relatively normal lives with donated kidneys, die.

As a person who's been living with one (thankfully healthy, so far) kidney all my life and may eventually need dialysis or a transplant, Tales From The Organ Trade made me think about what I'd do if faced with a similar situation. And at this point, I can't give a definitive answer.

But even if you don't have a vested interest, this film will open your eyes to a subject that's quite likely to have a bearing on someone you know. So even if it's for purely empathetic reasons only, Tales From The Organ Trade is worth seeing.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Good Ol' Freda reveals a nice part of The Beatles legend

Serious Beatles fans know who Brian Epstein was. But unless you were a member of the Fab Four's fan club, or have read extensively about the band, you probably couldn't identify Freda Kelly -- even though she was a member of the group's inner circle for 11 years and long outlasted its first manager.

Kelly quit school at age 16 and joined a typing pool. A short time later she was taken to Liverpool, England's Cavern to see The Beatles, where she became an instant fan and went on to see them there almost 200 times. It wasn't long before she was asked to become the head of the band's fan club, making her the envy of young women worldwide.

But she was content to remain in the background, avoid the spotlight and stay loyal to the the four band members and its manager, Epstein. She didn't succumb to bribe offers from newspapers looking for inside scoops back in the day, didn't cash in by writing a tell-all book after the break-up, and didn't fatten her bank account by selling all of her valuable Beatles memorabilia. She gave most of it to fans in 1974 and now keeps just a few boxes of items near and dear to her in her attic.

Kelly also turned down film offers in the past, but finally took up an offer from director Ryan White. He had an inside track since his uncle was a friend of Kelly's as a member of Beatles contemporaries The Merseybeats, and she wanted to leave something for her grandson to know about the exciting life she led in the 1960s.

The resulting documentary, Good Ol' Freda, had its international premiere last week at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. The film's title comes from George Harrison giving Kelly a shout-out in The Beatles' 1963 Christmas message, and it features interviews with Billy Kinsley from The Merseybeats, members of The Fourmost, Beatles press officer Tony Barrow and Paul McCartney's stepmother Angie, among others.

But it's Kelly's warmth, modesty and honesty that make her the true star of the show -- outshining even Ringo Starr's appearance where he sings her praises during the closing credits.

Kelly isn't one to kiss and tell, as she says. But while she says she never dated any of The Beatles, there's a hint that something might have gone on with at least one of them since she said she had a crush on each one of them at various times. She says that McCartney was the nicest, Lennon was a "man of many moods," Harrison didn't come across as "the quiet Beatle" with her and that original drummer Pete Best was shy and handsome.

But after Starr replaced Best behind the kit, Kelly would visit his mother Elsie once a week and they became good friends. In fact, it was Elsie who persuaded Epstein to give Kelly a raise. Harrison's father taught Kelly how to ballroom dance and she became the link with The Beatles' family members in Liverpool when the band was touring. She says she felt like she was a member of all the families.

But all good things must come to an end and, even though The Beatles had split up a couple of years earlier, she kept her position as the band's secretary at Apple Records until 1972 -- by which time she was married with a son and had a daughter on the way and wasn't having the fun she used to -- when she heeded Harrison's advice and wound The Beatles fan club down. But, ever devoted, she answered fan club letters on her own time for the next three years.

As proof that Kelly never profited much from the Beatles' phenomenal success, she still works as a secretary in a law office -- and remains a dedicated Beatles fan.

Even though several books and films have been made about The Beatles, Good Ol' Freda manages to offer some fresh insights into the band and, perhaps more importantly, introduces viewers to a sweet woman who just might end up with a fan club of her own.

Friday, May 03, 2013

The Last Black Sea Pirates

Swashbuckling ain't what it used to be.

The men who star as the titular characters in The Last Black Sea Pirates will never be confused with Johnny Depp. But if your taste in heartthrobs runs towards slovenly drifters, drunkards and ex-convicts, the 72 minutes you'll spend with this bumbling band of treasure hunters will fly right by.

Leader Captain Jack The Whale, who has lived with several dogs and cats in a decrepit trailer on a secluded Black Sea beach in Bulgaria for 25 years, is quite content to keep his men supplied with booze and smokes as long as they do the grunt work of digging to try and find large stashes of gold allegedly buried in Karadere by rogue 19th century Ottoman naval commander Vulchan. After all, Captain Jack is a leader -- not a labourer.

They've searched for years, but have much more success at catching fish than discovering gold. But what they're best at is being drunk and hapless, and their relationships go through highs and lows as their frustration increases -- especially after it's announced that the area they've been searching is going to be developed into a tourist resort. The pirates vow to fight the development by violent means, though construction is delayed so they can keep using their dynamite to blast for gold while their dubious plans to sabotage villas and cabanas are put on hold.

But this documentary (which the writer and director admit has some scripted scenes) doesn't just focus on the quest for riches. Hard-drinking pirate Ilko is in love with fellow lush Zone, who dreams of being his bride and using their share of the elusive loot to finance a grand wedding. This tragi-comic couple's ups and downs somewhat mirror the fractious friendships among Captain Jack's motley crew members and provide a neat parallel.

I don't want to give away too much, and I learned more than what's in the movie since the director and writer talked to the audience after its North American premiere at the Scotiabank Theatre on Wednesday night. So, while Captain Jack The Whale may lack the charm of Captain Jack Sparrow, his oddly endearing men make The Last Black Sea Pirates a film worth seeking out.

The Last Black Sea Pirates will have its final showing of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at 9 p.m. on May 4 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Rent A Family Inc. isn't what you might expect

Ryuichi runs a rather unusual company called I Want To Cheer You Up Ltd., but this Japanese man seems like he could use a lot more cheering up than his clients.

Ryuichi stands in to impersonate husbands, brothers and friends for Tokyo citizens who believe they need his services -- or those of the more than 20 people he employs to fill similar roles. His job is unique enough that he's asked to appear on a television show similar to (for those of you old enough to remember) What's My Line?, where he describes his profession while his face is blurred so his cover isn't ruined.

We soon learn, however, that Ryuichi's occupation is even a mystery to his wife and two sons. The wife says she never asks about his work, but finds different uniforms when she does laundry -- a byproduct of him having to take other jobs to make ends meet since I Want To Cheer You Up isn't as lucrative as he'd like and he finds himself in financial trouble.

When Ryuichi isn't away from home, the 44-year-old mostly sleeps on a mattress on the floor in his son's former bedroom -- since the boy now sleeps in a bed with his mother. And when Ryuichi is awake, he blocks out his family to focus on his website to try and build his business. His wife admits there's tension between them because they don't have meaningful conversations.

While Ryuichi claims that his focus is on making other people happy, it's at the expense of his family's happiness. For a man who earns part of his (meagre) living from impersonating husbands, he's doing a poor job of playing a real one.

Ryuichi dotes on his dog while complaining that his wife takes good care of their home, but not of him, and that she has a negative attitude. She concedes that she doesn't know if she'll stay with him after their sons leave for college in seven years.

One moment, Ryuichi shows us travel brochures and talks of his dream of taking his wife and kids on a Hawaiian vacation. The next moment, he confesses that he thinks of killing himself every day.

Ryuichi comes clean near the end of the movie and tells his wife about I Want To Cheer You Up and the financial distress they're facing. She thinks it's strange, which he expected, but says she doesn't care what he does. She just doesn't want to be part of it.

Getting this weight off his shoulders seems to lighten Ryuichi up emotionally and it appears that he's adopted a more positive outlook -- though things remain far from idyllic at home.

I went into Rent A Family Inc. expecting a quirky, relatively lighthearted documentary about an occupation and ways of life unique to Japanese culture (companies like I Want To Cheer You Up are apparently becoming more common). What I came away from was actually a pretty depressing film about a lonely man and a far from happy home.

I would have preferred the movie I anticipated.

Rent A Family Inc. will have its final showing of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at 1 p.m. on May 5 at Scotiabank Theatre.